Art + Technology: Brad Litwin

Brad Litwin is a hacker of the highest order: always following his own instructions and never shying from a challenge. His studio at the Stenton Guild in Germantown is littered with wires, gears, and bizarre contraptions with names like “The Octapult” and “The Pluckerator,” mind-boggling inventions that delight, inspire, and challenge the limits of engineering.

Litwin inherited the engineering gene from his father (inventor of the first electronic cash register!) and as a child quickly graduated from assembling model airplane kits to designing his own. At an early age the fiercely independent artist eschewed formal education in favor of his own methods; with help from books, craftsmen and his own astute observation, he excelled in professions from computer animation and multimedia development to product design and manufacturing. Today he collaborates on projects in the visual and musical arts, exhibits widely, and produces his unique line of MechaniCards. Litwin’s constant urge to investigate the inner workings of machinery has made him a veritable wizard of mechanics, and as his menagerie of kinetic oddities spins and whirs in the background, he reveals his secret: “If I don’t know something, I make it up,” he shrugs.

Watching one of Litwin’s contraptions in action is a mesmerizing experience. A maze of levers, pulleys and springs shifts and clicks in an endless cycle, like some bizarre game of Mouse Trap. But while the board game seems designed to fail, Litwin’s machines are precision engineered to operate perfectly, every time.

Litwin jokes of his annoyance each time he dreams up a new machine. “Now I just have to build it!” The general mechanisms and proportions already worked out in his mind, he makes preparatory sketches on paper or with the help of computer-aided design (CAD). He builds a model of the machine’s main mechanism, which will determine the rest of the design. Now begins the process of fine-tuning measurements, adjusting angles and springs, and choosing materials for durability, cost and aeshetic. He custom fabricates his parts using an array of precision tools and machines, from simple wooden jigs and fixtures to complicated lathes and drills, and a high-tech laser cutter. He measures most parts within a thousandth of an inch.

When the model operates reliably, he assembles the machine with the confidence that it will work. And rest assured, it will!

Litwin is interested in exploring the boundaries of perception and possibility. He describes his greatest reward as witnessing the emotional reactions his machines provoke; and when you see one in person, you’ll understand. The thrill of two high-molecular-density balls launched simultaneously, criss-crossing mid-air, suspended for a tense split-second before landing squarely in the receiving catapult, ready to be relaunched, is (somehow!) an immensely gratifying experience that could only come from the fantastic world of Litwin’s Kinetic Works.

Brad Litwin

Brad with a few of his tools – glue, power sander, laser cutter.

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